Friday, May 11, 2012

White Privilege and NASPA 2012

As I mentioned in my previous post about supporting undocumented students, I wanted to write about my experience attending NASPA in Arizona. Back in 2010, Arizona passed SB 1070, also known as the "papers, please" law, which allows local law enforcement to detain anyone for whom they have "reasonable suspicion" the person may be an undocumented immigrant. In a nation whose public debate over immigration is highly racialized, it's not difficult to imagine the impact of using "reasonable suspicion" in determining who may be undocumented and who most likely is not. This article at the Huffington Post and this video posted on the ACLU's website are great discussions of the racial profiling impact of SB 1070.

Originally I think I heard about the push for NASPA to reconsider Phoenix as its 2012 meeting location via ACPA's Commission for Social Justice Educators email listserv. At the time, I was working at a community college and had actually let my NASPA membership lapse--my memberships were not covered through the college, and the college was not an institutional member of either organization, meaning I was paying the full professional price. I was also very fired up about the issue as I was in a professional position where I worked with undocumented students. Our Latino/a Student Union organized an excursion to the University of Washington that summer (2010) to attend a forum on the DREAM Act, and that Fall I invited Dr. Roberto Gonzales, at that time faculty with UW's School of Social Work, to speak on campus about his research into the experiences of undocumented college students. I wanted NASPA to reconsider Phoenix as its conference location.

I was disappointed when the NASPA Board announced it had chosen to keep the conference in Phoenix. I can appreciate how difficult the decision had to have been, but I felt NASPA, with the influence and power it has within the student affairs field, could have done better. For instance, AERA (American Educational Research Association, the largest professional association for education researchers) had planned its 2013 for Atlanta, GA, but moved that meeting to San Francisco after the Georgia legislature passed their own version of SB 1070. I often want to believe that our profession will get political when necessary and make statements like boycotting Arizona facilities until SB 1070 is repealed, but I know this will not always be the reality.

And then things changed for me. In the fall of 2010, I decided it was time to move on from my professional position. I decided to apply for PhD programs, as my ultimate goal is to become a higher education researcher and academic, and at the beginning of 2011, I was hearing back from schools about admission into various programs. All of a sudden I realized I was going to be back in school again, and that for the first time since 2008, I would be able to attend national conferences.

I was invited by my dear friend Lisa Endersby to present with her at NASPA 2012 on a topic we had been discussing for several months at that point, and I did not want to turn this opportunity down. I started thinking again about my feelings on NASPA in Phoenix and, I guess, began to rationalize them away in favor of attending the conference: "My decision to attend NASPA will have little to no impact on the state's decision to repeal SB 1070; I'm not even sure moving NASPA elsewhere will have an impact on the state's decision to repeal SB 1070!" "My grandparents and my aunt and uncle live in Phoenix, it would be really nice to see them." "I'll just get involved at the conference with any discussions happening around immigration and NASPA's position on the DREAM Act. That will be more impactful."

I wanted to go to the conference and reconnect with people I hadn't seen in a long time, I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to present with Lisa. I was going to be a graduate student again so it would be accessible. I was coming face-to-face with my own White privilege (and fairly aware of it too) but feeling extremely unsure as to what to do about it at the time. And I began to wonder (defensively?) why we aren't asking our professional associations to consider other unjust laws, like states which do not protect LGBTQ people against discrimination, in making decisions about conference locations (ahem, Kentucky). I think I was rationalizing, but in retrospect, I learned much from this experience as well.

At the conference, I made sure to attend different sessions exploring immigration, how the debate is framed in public and how the debate is framed within higher education. A friend of mine talked me into attending the NASPA Public Policy Town Hall as well, which ended up being the most rewarding of these sessions in terms of NASPA's position on supporting undocumented students. Most of NASPA's Latino/a Knowledge Community attended the session as a way to voice their anger and concern over the decision to keep the conference in Arizona. Again, "undocumented immigrant" does not equal "Mexican," but in public discourse, it often does, and anger about immigration is often directed at Latina/os in this nation as a result. Members spoke about how many Latina/o NASPA members had either chosen not to attend, or to bring several forms of ID, out of concern for their own safety simply out on the streets of Phoenix. And not simply safety in the face of public attitudes about immigration--safety in terms of defending oneself should one be racially profiled by local law enforcement.

The issue was not NASPA making a statement and boycotting Phoenix in protest--the issue was NASPA not comprehending just how hostile an environment it was bringing its conference into. A candlelight vigil is not enough to make up for this concern for personal safety. And the icing on the cake? Just a week before the conference a lesbian couple experienced anti-gay discrimination at one of the conference hotels (the Sheraton). Like I said, I know moving a conference is an extremely difficult and costly decision, but with a little creativity the association could have done better. Perhaps a fundraising campaign built around the concern for social justice and safety may have been able to energize members and sponsors to help make up the cost?

Needless to say, I was surprised by what I learned from this experience. In retrospect, I'm not sure I disagree with my decision to attend. If the conference was staying put, I think it was responsible to engage the issue, though that decision looks different for different people. For me, in hindsight, it felt impactful to engage the issue in Arizona in Phoenix at NASPA. For others, it may have been more responsible and impactful to choose not to attend. The association did announce in the Town Hall that it backs passage of the DREAM Act and is exploring how it can become more involved in getting that legislation passed in Congress. But most of all, I hope this serves as a lesson to our professional associations (or, perhaps in the future, association in the singular) when considering locations for meetings and conferences. On the one hand, it's not like student affairs and higher education do not exist in states like Arizona, and we need to bring our professional development opportunities to their spaces too, but on the other, we need to be inclusive of and sensitive to the needs and concerns of all our membership.

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes


  1. Bryce, I think you raise some interesting points. To be completely honest, I think that if organizations delved deeply into conference sites no state or hotel chain would be immune. Systemic and individual discrimination occur everywhere. And while boycotting an entire state definitely sends a strong message, the real world outcomes of that boycott are most often felt by the most marginalized. Just another example of our privilege--I can opt to forgo a professional conference based on ideas and have little to no ramification for that decision.


    1. I'm glad you raised that point as well. I think it's extremely important to realize, mainly due to the way capitalism works, the impact of most economic protest often hurts the most vulnerable first. I still don't have an answer regarding which would have been the best decision, but I'm glad folks are talking about it.